Issue 109 |
Fall 2009

Postscripts: Cohen Award Winners Tarfia Faizullah and Steven Schwartz

Cohen Awards Each year, we honor the best poem and short story published in Ploughshares with the Cohen Awards, which are wholly sponsored by our longtime patrons Denise and Mel Cohen. Finalists are nominated by staff editors, and the winners—each of whom receives a cash prize of $600—are selected by our advisory editors. The 2009 Cohen Awards for work published in Ploughshares in 2008, Volume 34, go to Tarfia Faizullah and Steven Schwartz.

Tarfia Faizullah for her poem "from Interview with a Birangona" in Winter 2008-09, edited by Jean Valentine.

Tarfia Faizullah was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1980, and raised in Midland, Texas, by parents who had immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1978. The daughter of a doctor with a private practice that her mother manages, Faizullah"s early love of reading started close to home. "My father often had Highlights magazine in the waiting room of his clinic," she says, "which I read from cover to cover. I also avidly read everything by Madeleine L"Engle, Cynthia Voigt, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, to name a few. I wrote as a child, both poems and short stories. I think it was reading that ultimately led me to writing. It was through that act of immersion in someone else"s attempt to describe the world that I felt a strong compulsion to do the same. I used to copy poems I had read in volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica for Kids into my journal. Later, in college, I read this quote by Gunter Kunert in Stephen Dunn"s memoir Walking Light: "That"s why I write: to bear the world as it crumbles." That struck an incredible chord with me."

Faizullah was educated at Trinity School of Midland, an Episcopalian private school, from the time she was five years old until she graduated high school. "I was a pretty good student," she says, "though easily convinced by fat novels to neglect my schoolwork." A rigorous humanities education at the University of Texas at Austin led her to graduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she recently completed her M.F.A. in creative writing. "There," she says, "I was fortunate enough to have been part of a thriving, supportive community composed of both peers and faculty members, particularly David Wojahn, Gregory Donovan, and Claudia Emerson, who taught two classes there as a visiting professor."

Faizullah"s poems have recently appeared in The Southern Review, and are forthcoming in Nimrod, Bellingham Review, Notre Dame Review, and Copper Nickel. She was recently a recipient of the Academy of American Poets University & College Prize. She"s currently working, she says, "on a loose sequence of epistolary poems to different South Asian figures one might encounter in day-to-day situations. "Postcards to the Other Brown Girl in My Weight Lifting Class," "To the Bangladeshi Cab Driver in San Francisco" and "Telegram to Auntie Neelam at Zahra Salon" are example titles. I"ve also been working on a longer poem about my childhood and adolescence that is interwoven with passages about Mata Hari"s life."

About "from Interview with a Birangona," Tarfia Faizullah writes: "My family is originally from Bangladesh, and my parents gave me the rare gift of taking me to Bangladesh almost every year since I was a child for sometimes three months at a time. I have always marveled at the complexities of the culture there. On one hand, it is a young, third world country struggling with natural disaster and socio-economic strife. On the other hand, the Bangladeshi landscape and its people continue to be both beautiful and strong-willed.

"My interest in this landscape collided with learning about these women, the birangona, a few years ago at a panel of South Asian writers reading from their work. Though I thought I was familiar with the War of Independence and its aftermath, I had never heard about these women before. I continue to be stunned by how little discussion there seems to be about what surely is a devastating war crime not dissimilar from what happened to the comfort women in Korea during World War ii.

"In the course of researching these women, I began to wonder what a birangona might say if asked about her life as a sex slave years after the liberation of Bangladesh. The initial one or two poems have now evolved into a much longer sequence. The poems, written from the birangona"s perspective, are now interspersed with "interviewer"s notes," so that the perspective of the interviewer, who I imagine to be a Bangladeshi-American woman, might be given some space as well. The poems have always been loosely formal, which has been important in attempting to order the diverse range of emotions and experiences a birangona might have undergone during such horrific violence."

Steven Schwartz for his story "Bless Everybody" in Fall 2008, edited by James Alan McPherson.

Steven Schwartz was born in 1950 in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial town along the Delaware River, and grew up just outside Chester, near Swarthmore College. "I used to walk around the campus and wonder what it would be like to go to college there," he says. His father owned a furniture store for many years, and his mother was a bookkeeper before becoming a homemaker. Though drawn to writing and books, Schwartz"s main aspiration while growing up was to become a psychologist. "Even as a child," he says, "I would ask friends: "How does that make you feel?" and actually be interested in their responses. My brother, Louis, older than me by three years, was destined to be the writer in the family. He had an enormous library at the anomalous age of thirteen, everything from science fiction to D. H. Lawrence"s collected works to copies of distinguished literary journals. I would dip into these materials, many of the novels first editions my brother collected, equally unusual for someone his age. Sometimes, just to have the words on my tongue, I"d mouth a particularly lyrical passage as if lip-synching the writer"s work. My brother took another route, becoming a literary and film critic. I, meanwhile, never forgot his grand library—I can still see the order of the books—dreaming of one day having a place on its shelves."

Schwartz went to high school in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and then "had a checkered career as an undergraduate," attending several schools before eventually graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in psychology. During his last semester there, however, he "got up the gumption" to enroll in a creative writing class. "It changed everything," he says, "including my plans to go to graduate school in psychology. I was hooked by the endlessly associative possibilities of the imagination through language, which I"d not found in my other subjects. In graduate school at the University of Arizona, I felt for the first time that discussing craft was the way I"d always wanted to talk about literature; it was redolent of my "tasting" those great sentences on my tongue as a child."

Schwartz has since published four books, including the novels Therapy and A Good Doctor"s Son, and has won the Nelson Algren Award, two O. Henry Awards, the Colorado Book Award for Fiction, the Sherwood Anderson Prize, the Cleanth Brooks Prize in Nonfiction from The Southern Review, as well as a fellowship from the NEA. Recent stories and essays have been published in Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Colorado State University and in the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program, and is currently at work writing two novels simultaneously. "When I get stuck on one," he says, "I switch to the other. Of course, the method fails when I get stuck on both. Then it"s just the familiar blank page, an old friend at this point."

About "Bless Everybody," Steven Schwartz writes: "We used to own land near the Wyoming-Colorado border and, out of the blue, a man called and asked if he, his wife, and young son could stay there. Never mind that they"d already "squatted" there for a couple of days. They were from Utah and his wife was pregnant with their second child. As in the story, he said they"d been "led" to the place. In person, the man bore an unnerving resemblance to Garrison Keillor and had ample charisma of his own until his narcissism betrayed him. Complications ensued, though not the particular menacing ones in the story, but the event stayed with me. And, as with many stories, the trigger comes years later. In Ojai, California, I saw a bumper sticker that said Bless Everybody: No Exceptions. An incident or anecdote does not a story make, however, and something has to occur to personalize the events so that they become urgent, and yet purposeful and universal enough to have meaning beyond themselves. In "Bless Everybody," I think I was fascinated by investigating a character needing to determine the extent and quality of goodness in himself, given the difficulty of trying to make that assessment. With my children almost grown, my teaching in its latter years, my parents dead, I was ruminating at some unconscious level about what sort of husband, parent, teacher, son, and man I"ve been in the world. The narrator in "Bless Everybody" experiences at the story"s end a moment of hard-won renewal; I think of such possibilities as a kind of secular grace, often arising from the most peculiar and unexpected of circumstances. Stories have their seasons, and "Bless Everybody" is not a story I think I would—or could—have written as a young man."

More Awards Our congratulations to the following writers, whose work has been selected for these anthologies:

Best Stories Alex Rose"s "Ostracon," from the Fall 2008 issue edited by James Alan McPherson, will be included in The Best American Short Stories 2009. The anthology is due out this October from Houghton Mifflin, with Alice Sebold as the guest editor and Heidi Pitlor as the series editor.

Pushcarts William Lychack"s story "Stolpestad," Peter Everwine"s poem "Rain," and Christie Hodgen"s story "Tom & Jerry," all from the Spring 2008 issue edited by B. H. Fairchild, have been selected for The Pushcart Prize xxxiv: Best of the Small Presses, which will be published by Bill Henderson"s Pushcart Press this November.

O. Henrys Paul Yoon"s story "And We Will Be There," from the Fall 2007 issue edited by Andrea Barrett, will be included in The pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009. The anthology was published by Anchor in May with stories chosen by a jury of A. S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, and Tim O"Brien. The series editor is Laura Furman.